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American Default: The Untold Story of FDR, the Supreme Court, and the Battle over Gold

Sebastian Edwards. Princeton Univ., $29.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-691-16188-4

Edwards (Toxic Aid), a UCLA economics professor, skillfully narrates a pivotal episode in American political and economic history he considers too little remembered. He reminds readers that in 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, the FDR administration effectively engineered a default—something now considered unimaginable, despite the U.S.’s huge amount of public debt—by abandoning the gold standard, allowing debtors to repay creditors in fiat currency and replacing money backed by gold with money backed by the government. Edwards writes equally knowledgeably about economics and politics: he notes President Roosevelt’s unwavering commitment to the “forgotten man,” the Supreme Court’s reluctant support of the executive branch (despite its aversion to the abrogation of contracts and the gold standard), and the prevailing economic wisdom of the time (for instance, Roosevelt’s economic adviser, George F. Warren, believed that prices rose or fell according to the world’s stock of gold). Edwards also notes that America’s default may provide legal justification for other countries to institute sovereign defaults in the future. At a time of economic uncertainty at home and abroad, this comprehensive study of an important event in U.S. fiscal history has significant implications for today. (June)

Reviewed on 04/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Save the Planet: An Amazonian Tribal Leader Fights for His People, the Rainforest, and the Earth

Almir Narayamoga Suruí and Corine Sombrun. Schaffner, $16.95 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-1-943156-41-2

Amazonian tribal leader Suruí pairs up with environmental journalist Sombrun to tell his story in this important but sometimes less-than-gripping volume. Suruí offers a first-person account of life in the state of Rondônia in northwestern Brazil, hit hard by deforestation in recent decades—it has lost approximately 40% of its native forest to agriculture and timber production. He details conflicts with land grabbers such as the Itaporanga company, which “illegally appropriated a section of territory bordering the Ji-Parana River” and sold counterfeit deeds to scores of settler families, who moved in and started cutting down trees. His personal endeavors include studying applied biology at the University of Goaiania and getting elected clan chief shortly after receiving his degree. Surui’s initial goals for his group were to encourage them to “reconnect with our traditions,” to develop an effective bilingual educational program for the children, and to improve the overall health of the population. He writes almost nonchalantly of the $100,000 bounty that has been put on his head by timber poachers upset with his conservation efforts, and of the bodyguards tasked to protect him. Though his story is undeniably fascinating, Surui’s matter-of-fact narrative style can be rather dull, limiting the memoir’s general appeal. (July)

Reviewed on 04/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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A Miscellany

E.E. Cummings, edited by George J. Firmage. Liveright, $26.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-87140-653-8

Originally published in limited edition in 1958, and then as an expanded version several years later, this long-out-of-print collection serves as a welcome reminder that Cummings’s output encompassed much more than his famous verse. The content comprises mostly prose pieces, along with excerpts from an unfinished play and, of course, poems. Throughout, Cummings’s distinctive style is in full flower, even as most of the pieces come from his early career as a Vanity Fair contributor in the 1920s. Satirical, pointed, and gleaming, Cummings’s essays commented on the American fascination with France, the popularity of burlesque, and the rise of tabloids. More seriously, he also tackled modern artistic movements, such as cubism, that were flourishing at the time. Other pieces reveal the experimental and almost chaotic streak in Cummings’s writing, with some working and others falling flat. Throughout, though, there are nuggets of universal observation that still ring true (“America makes prodigious mistakes. America has colossal faults, but one thing cannot be denied: America is always on the move”). The volume also includes many of Cummings’s illustrations, revealing another facet of his abundant creativity. Cummings enthusiasts will delight that these writings are now readily available. (July)

Reviewed on 04/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Man Who Ate the Zoo: Frank Buckland, Forgotten Hero of Natural History

Richard Girling. Vintage, $16.95 trade paper (394p) ISBN 978-1-784-70161-1

Journalist Girling delivers a delightful tribute to Frank Buckland (1826–1880), an eccentric natural history pioneer in Victorian England who, despite his contributions as a popular science writer, lecturer, and curator, is now little known. Buckland’s primary goal was to identify previously unused or unknown plant and animal species as new food sources for England’s poor, and he carried this interest in strange foodstuffs into his personal life. He earned a reputation at school for cooking unique breakfasts for his classmates that included marmots, doves, and frogs; later in his career, he treated lecture attendees to rhinoceros pie. Buckland’s scientific curiosity had no boundaries—his studies extended to cobra venom, with nearly disastrous results, and an unusual postmortem to identify the cause of his father’s death. His studies turned, finally, to his life’s work—fish. The book’s detail is extraordinary, especially for an obscure historical figure, and Girling’s straightforward style, peppered with humorous anecdotes, makes for lively reading. Buckland was clearly ahead of his time, identifying looming problems of pollution and overfishing. Sadly, he “died too soon” to receive the credit due to him, but this affectionate biography provides some overdue credit to a fascinating pioneer. (July)

Reviewed on 04/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein

Jamie Bernstein. Harper, $28.99 (400p) ISBN 978-0-06-264135-9

Film documentarian Bernstein (Crescendo! The Power of Music), the oldest of three children of conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, presents an in-depth, intimate view of her father, juxtaposed with her own upbringing in his shadow. Her memories can be jarringly candid at times: she recalls the superstar conductor on the toilet while smoking, perusing a score, and promising to be with her as soon as he finishes “this movement.” Bernstein brings readers from her father’s early conducting days at the New York Philharmonic to the creation of such hit musicals as West Side Story and Candide, as well as his failures, such as the legendary flop 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She depicts the family’s various homes (a country house in Fairfield, Conn.; a Park Avenue penthouse; an apartment in the Dakota building), as well as the famous people she met (Lauren Bacall, Jackie Kennedy, Stephen Sondheim, Lillian Hellman). Although the star-studded environment was stimulating, Bernstein longed for one-on-one time with a “normal” father. As a young adult, she grappled with the realization that her father was bisexual, unfaithful to her mother, and addicted to amphetamines. The larger-than-life maestro looms energetically over the family even after his death in 1990: all three children continued to work toward forwarding his legacy, either by organizing his archives or starting a newsletter for his fans. Bernstein paints a fascinating picture of the dizzying magic that Leonard Bernstein brought to his music—and the complexity to his home life. Photos. (June)

Reviewed on 04/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Stars: A Neuropsychologist’s Odyssey Through Consciousness

Paul Broks. Crown, $27 (336p) ISBN 978-0-307-98579-8

Broks (Into the Silent Land) reflects on the idea of death and what it means to be human in this collection of musings centered loosely on his personal struggle to cope with his wife’s cancer diagnosis and her death some years later. He mingles memories, dreams, and his deepest thoughts with teaching experiences and clinical observations drawn from a career as a neuropsychologist. More than a compilation of case studies, Broks’s book is a digressive journey through the subject of human consciousness. He mixes pub banter, philosophy, Greek myths, the “deathbed” music of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, Paolo Faraldo’s theory of neuronal relativity, Antonio Damasio’s neurobiological search for the self, and many other topics in an attempt to broaden the perspective on neuroscience’s most central question: “how and why physical states of the brain produce mental experiences.” Or, as the author states the question, “How does the insentient, physical stuff of the brain... the 1,200 cubic centimeters of gloop that fills our skulls—how does that stuff create awareness?” Like the box of old family photographs Broks achingly describes, this metascience narrative is well worth sorting through. (July)

Reviewed on 04/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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A Bite-Sized History of France: Gastronomic Tales of Revolution, War, and Enlightenment

Stéphane Hénaut and Jeni Mitchell. New Press, $26.99 (352p) ISBN 978-1-62097-251-9

Husband-and-wife authors Hénault and Mitchell serve up a fascinating history of France through food. They discuss Marie Antoinette’s notorious phrase “let them eat cake” (which the authors maintain she never actually said in response to being told “the people of France had no more bread to eat”) and the role sugar played in the city of Nantes, known for its rum-soaked vanilla cake (due to France’s slave-based sugar-cane plantations in the Caribbean, the city developed sugar refineries in the late 17th century). Referring to Napoleon’s famous adage—“an army marches on its stomach”—the authors recount an omen involving his flipping of crepes ahead of his failed invasion of Moscow (he flipped four crepes perfectly as a sign of good luck, but the fifth fell into the flames). The authors share some intriguing facts: a country as small as France, for example, produces five million tons of potatoes yearly. The authors also discuss the country’s drastically declining bee population, which caused French honey production to drop from 30,000 tons in the early 1990s to 10,000 tons in 2014. Hénault and Mitchell are often witty (perhaps most amusingly illustrated by a chapter called “War and Peas”) even as they present their exceptionally well-researched material. This culinary history is a treat for Francophiles. (July)

Reviewed on 04/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age

James Crabtree. Crown/Duggan, $27 (369p) ISBN 978-1-5247-6006-9

In this eye-opening rumination on wealth, power, and those who seek both, Crabtree, a former India correspondent for the Financial Times, ventures deep into the shadowy heart of India’s “black-money” economy. From the cantilevered skyscrapers of Mumbai’s billionaire elite to a neglected Muslim ghetto in Ahmedabad, Crabtree brings a reporter’s precision and flair to his story, arguing that the rise of the “Bollygarchs” and the takeover of Indian politics by huge sums of private money has led to a boom-and-bust cycle in India’s industrial economy. Weaving in interviews with politicians, central bankers, and industrial tycoons, he concludes that a lack of state capacity in India—the famously byzantine business licensing system, as well as low levels of investment in infrastructure—has contributed to rent-seeking and crony capitalism on the one hand and populist politics with a Hindu nationalist tinge on the other. An inside look into the corridors of power, this is an invaluable commentary on Indian democracy and the forces that threaten it. Agent: Toby Mundy, Toby Mundy Assoc. (July)

Reviewed on 04/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Between Hope and Fear: A History of Vaccines and Human Immunity

Michael Kinch. Pegasus, $27.95 (352p) ISBN 978-1-68177-751-1

Kinch (A Prescription for Change), director of the Center for Research Innovation in Biotechnology at Washington University in St. Louis, studiously chronicles some of the worst disease outbreaks in human history and the development of the vaccines that stanched the tide of suffering. He traces the trail of smallpox from its early days as the “Antonine Plague” in ancient Rome, through the arrival of the Spanish in the New World, to the eventual development of the smallpox vaccine by Edward Jenner in 1796. He recalls the development of the drug AZT, used to treat HIV and AIDS, by a band of scientists with Nobel Prize–winning biochemist Gertrude “Trudie” Elion at the helm, and details the nationalist rivalry between Louis Pasteur and German microbiologist Robert Koch. Kinch also gives accessible science lessons in immune-activating interferons, how the T cells and B cells function in the human immune system, and the different problems in treating bacterial and viral infections. Kinch’s main purpose, however, is to warn against the dangers of the antivaccine movement, “fringe elements in the public” who believe in discredited links between various vaccines and autism. Kinch’s argument in favor of reason and science over fear and charlatanism is cogent and well-researched, presenting a large-scale chronological narrative of disease and prevention. Agent: Don Fehr, Trident Media Group. (July)

Reviewed on 04/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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A Girl’s Guide to Missiles: Growing Up in America’s Secret Desert

Karen Piper. Viking, $27 (336p) ISBN 978-0-399-56454-3

Piper (The Price of Thirst) chronicles her coming-of-age in this affecting memoir about growing up in the 1970s on a naval missile testing base in California’s Mojave Desert. When her father, a WWII veteran, suddenly lost his job as an aerospace engineer at Boeing, he moved his wife and two daughters to Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, where he landed a job after six months. Throughout Piper’s charming narrative looms the threat of nuclear war, Watergate, and concerns about UFOs. “I grew up in the age of missiles, which are essentially rockets with brains,” she writes. As a youth Piper embraced her Christian upbringing and insisted she attend the Immanuel Christian middle school; in high school she embraced the Reaganite iteration of “Make American Great Again.” Later, she questioned her faith and examined China Lake’s history, including the prominent and underappreciated role women played on the missile base working alongside their male counterparts. She eventually attended graduate school in Eugene, Ore., where she took classes in literature and feminism, and left the Republican Party. This is a fascinating look at growing up in Cold War America, as told by a sharp and affable narrator. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 04/20/2018 | Details & Permalink

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